Municipal Solid Waste in New York City: An Economic and Environmental Analysis of Disposal Options

Municipal Solid Waste in New York City: An Economic and Environmental Analysis of Disposal Options
This background paper was prepared for the New York League of Conservation Voters
Education Fund (NYLCVEF) as part of its Policy Forum on Managing New York City’s Solid

Author: Derek Sylvan, MPA Candidate, Columbia University School of International and
Public Affairs

            Municipal Solid Waste in New York City:
    An Economic and Environmental Analysis of Disposal Options

Executive Summary

Disposal methods for municipal solid waste (MSW) in New York City have evolved from ocean
and street dumping to unregulated incineration, and current export and landfilling practices. At
present, the majority of New York City’s MSW is processed at private transfer stations
predominantly located in outer-borough neighborhoods, and shipped on long-haul trucks to out-
of-state landfills. Heavy reliance on trucking adversely affects air quality in neighborhoods
around transfer stations and leads to traffic congestion, noise, smog, and significant greenhouse
gas emissions. Rising fuel prices also threaten to make current disposal methods unaffordable in
the future, and landfilling practices can be environmentally problematic, particularly with respect
to greenhouse gas emissions.

Each day, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) disposes of roughly 11,000 tons of waste, and
the City is exploring ways to make its solid waste management practices more sustainable. The
2006 Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) outlined two major goals: the
gradual elimination of long-haul truck transport of MSW (to be accomplished by expanding rail
and barge transport infrastructure); and the improvement of neighborhood equity with respect to
waste management (to be achieved by adding Manhattan transfer stations and reducing the
amount of MSW processed in the outer boroughs). The infrastructure improvements required to
implement this plan are extremely costly, and community opposition to new transfer stations has
slowed the implementation process.

Additionally, the City has made efforts to explore new conversion technologies for waste
disposal by soliciting and evaluating a series of proposals for in-city commercial facilities and
commissioning feasibility studies. A range of technologies that could play a role in DSNY’s
waste disposal efforts are evaluated in this paper.

Waste-to-Energy (WTE) incineration is already used to process portions of New York City’s
waste at a commercial facility in Newark, New Jersey. This technology combusts MSW and uses
the residual heat to generate electricity with net electric output efficiency of approximately 17%
to 20%. WTE incineration is cost-competitive with landfilling, and stringent emission controls
put in place in the 1990’s have drastically improved the quality of air emissions, which once
contained high quantities of dioxins and heavy metals. WTE incineration facilities can
accommodate large throughputs of MSW, and this disposal option could potentially be expanded

Municipal Solid Waste in New York City: An Economic and Environmental Analysis of Disposal Options
at one or more sites proximate to the city (in-city facilities are not currently being considered).
One major environmental drawback of WTE incineration is the large number of truck trips
required to deliver waste to out-of-city facilities.

Anaerobic digestion is a particularly promising conversion technology that has performed well in
New York City evaluations. Through the controlled decomposition of organic material, this
process produces a biogas that can be combusted to generate electricity. While proposed
facilities can only handle modest portions of the City’s MSW, the technology appears to be one
of the most cost-effective disposal options available, and it has few environmental drawbacks. A
2010 feasibility study also concluded that an anaerobic digestion facility located near the Hunts
Point Food Distribution Center would likely reduce truck traffic associated with waste disposal.
This technology, which boasts an impressive energy conversion ratio of roughly 42%, appears
ripe for development in New York City.

Thermal processing technologies such as gasification and pyrolysis are relatively young
conversion methods that decompose organic waste in high temperature, oxygen-starved
environments, and produce syngas (which can be used to generate electricity). These facilities
can accommodate large quantities of MSW and produce significant amounts of electricity,
however they are currently very expensive to build, operate, and maintain. Because thermal
processing facilities generally require a base level of organic and plastic waste in their feedstock
to run properly, some environmental groups have opposed the technologies on the grounds that
they undermine recycling, composting, and waste reduction efforts.

Given the vast amount of waste managed by DSNY and the complex tradeoffs between various
disposal options, a combination of methods will necessarily be needed for New York City’s
MSW disposal. A precise quantification of the truck travel required for various disposal options
could potentially help guide the City’s decision-making process, as local truck traffic is a
primary source of both negative environmental impacts and neighborhood equity concerns. The
calculus involved in this assessment will change as the DSNY truck fleet continues to modernize
and incorporate more fuel-efficient vehicles.

As the City recalibrates the composition of future waste disposal contracts, efforts should be
made to rapidly integrate desirable new options that have demonstrated feasibility, and ensure
that all capital-intensive projects meet the long-term goals outlined in the SWMP. Anaerobic
digestion technology appears to offer a promising disposal option, and given the City’s stated
interest in developing in-city disposal facilities, it may be desirable for the City to begin the
siting and procurement processes for such a facility in the near future.

While the primary goals of the SWMP remain desirable, the City may want to re-evaluate the
merits of certain capital-intensive infrastructure projects and explore re-directing resources to the
accelerated modernization of the DSNY vehicle fleet or the construction of new in-city
conversion facilities. These options could potentially achieve the goals of neighborhood equity
and environmentally sound disposal in a more cost-effective way.

Municipal Solid Waste in New York City: An Economic and Environmental Analysis of Disposal Options
Solid Waste Disposal in New York City: A Brief History

Until the 1930’s, much of New York City’s waste was dumped into city streets or the ocean. In
1881, the City created the Department of Street Cleaning, a precursor to Department of
Sanitation, in order to deal with pervasive waste in the streets and associated public health
problems. For much of the twentieth century, thousands of apartment building incinerators and a
small number of municipal incinerators burned large portions of the city’s waste. While
incineration offered a relatively convenient disposal option, the lack of emission controls meant
that the city’s air quality suffered. By mid-century, municipal incinerators no longer played a
major role in MSW disposal, though apartment building incinerators were still in use through the

In the twentieth century, portions of New York City’s waste were also sent to 89 city-owned
landfills. The largest of these was Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. Initially opened in 1947,
Fresh Kills was planned as a temporary solution until new municipal incinerators were built in
each borough. It would later become the world’s largest landfill.

In the 1990’s, in-city incineration fully ceased, and New York City instituted recycling
requirements for paper, metal, glass, and plastic. By the late 1990’s all the solid waste collected
by the City was transported to Fresh Kills, mostly via barge from a series of marine transfer
stations. Due to local political pressure and environmental concerns, Fresh Kills was closed in
2001, though it was briefly re-opened as a disposal site for debris from the September 11, 2001
terrorist attacks. After the closure of Fresh Kills, private transfer stations – predominantly
located in outer-borough neighborhoods – began processing most of New York City’s solid
waste for transport by rail and long-haul truck to out-of-state landfills.

In 2006, New York City released its Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan, which has
two primary goals: increased borough equity with regard to MSW disposal (to remedy the heavy
burden placed on neighborhoods that process waste generated in other boroughs), and the
reduction of long-haul truck transport for waste export (to reduce both the environmental impacts
of truck transport and the economic burden of rising fuel costs and landfill tipping fees). Full
implementation of this plan requires significant capital costs, as infrastructure must be modified
for MSW containerization to enable increased barge and rail export. The City is continuing to
move forward with the process, though community opposition to new transfer stations and
budget constraints have delayed the timeline for full implementation.

Quantifying New York City’s Municipal Solid Waste

Each year, New York City generates approximately 14 million tons of waste and recyclables.1
Nearly 50,000 tons of waste are collected per day, and the Department of Sanitation (DSNY)
manages about 25% of this amount. The remaining 75% is generated by private businesses or

    City of New York, 2011. PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York – Solid Waste. April 2011 Update.

Municipal Solid Waste in New York City: An Economic and Environmental Analysis of Disposal Options
construction activities and is privately managed.2 Over 2,000 city-owned trucks and 4,000
private trucks are used for in-city collection.

The focus of this paper will be                          DSNY-Collected Mixed MSW
the solid waste managed by                              Composition by Material Group
DSNY and the economic and
environmental      merits      of
various disposal options. Each
day, DSNY disposes of
approximately 11,000 tons of
waste, and the agency spends
roughly $1 billion annually on
solid waste disposal. 3 While
the City estimates that one
third of the residential waste
stream could be recycled
through the current curbside
collection     program,       the
curbside and containerized
recycling diversion rate in New
York City was only 15.7% in
fiscal year 2010.4 The vast
majority of remaining waste is
hauled to out-of-state landfills.
                                                                     Source: Alternative Resources, Inc., 2006

Current/Planned System of Disposal: Out-of-State Landfilling

The current method of disposal for nearly all of New York City’s MSW involves long-haul
transport to out-of-state landfills. After the closure of Fresh Kills, the City negotiated short-term
contracts with various landfills outside of New York City. In recent years, landfill availability in
the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic has become increasingly limited and disposal prices have risen
sharply, forcing the City to look farther afield for landfill options.

Long-haul trucking is the primary method used to transport MSW from New York City transfer
stations to landfills. Forty-five percent of city-collected waste is currently transported in this
manner, while 32% of waste is transported by rail, and 23% travels shorter distances via City-
collection trucks.5 The portion of waste that is not brought to out-of-state landfills is currently
processed at the Newark Resource Recovery Center, a Waste-to-Energy incineration plant.

  New York City Department of Sanitation, 2006. Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan.

  City of New York, Mayor's Office of Operations, 2011. The Mayor’s Management Report Preliminary Fiscal
          2011, p. 105.
  City of New York, Mayor's Office of Operations, 2011
  City of New York, 2011

The Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan: In 2006, New York City released its
Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP). This revised framework for waste
management outlines ambitious recycling targets as well as plans to reorganize MSW disposal
around two broad goals: borough self-sufficiency with respect to MSW disposal, and the
eventual elimination of long-haul trucking in order to address rising transport costs and
environmental impacts.

In order to transition away from long-
haul trucking, the SWMP proposes
major increases in rail and barge
transport      of    MSW.         Because
containerization of waste at local
transfer stations is a necessary step in
this process, the City has formulated
plans to build or retrofit a series of
transfer stations and upgrade current
infrastructure. Four marine transfer
stations that became obsolete with the
closure of Fresh Kills are slated for
retrofitting to accommodate containerization and barge transport: Hamilton Avenue (Brooklyn),
Southwest Brooklyn, East 91st Street (Manhattan), and North Shore (Queens).6 In 2009-2010,
initial construction commenced on the Hamilton Avenue and North Shore facilities,7 while the
Southwest Brooklyn and East 91st Street facilities are still in the permitting process. Budget
shortfalls and opposition from communities surrounding many of these transfer station sites have
significantly delayed the timeline for full implementation of the SWMP. For wastesheds that are
not served by these four facilities, the SWMP proposes long-term contracts with private transfer
stations for truck-to-rail or truck-to-barge disposal. To date, several of these contracts have been
signed.8 Under the SWMP, much of Manhattan’s waste will continue to be processed at the
Newark Resource Recovery WTE facility.

Another primary goal of the SWMP is increased borough and neighborhood equity with regard
to MSW disposal. Transfer stations located in a small number of outer-borough neighborhoods
currently process the vast majority of the city’s waste: 70% percent of the city’s MSW is
processed at 14 waste transfer stations in the South Bronx, 15 in Williamsburg/Greenpoint,
Brooklyn, and five in southeastern Queens. 9 The Bloomberg administration has proposed that
each borough eventually process its own waste, and full SWMP implementation would create a
more equitable distribution of transfer stations (largely due to new sites in Manhattan). However,
the planned transfer station on East 91st and a new recycling facility on the Gansevoort
Peninsula in Manhattan have already met with fierce community opposition, delaying the
implementation of SWMP-inspired efforts to improve neighborhood equity.

  New York City Department of Sanitation, 2006.
  New York City Department of Sanitation, 2010. DSNY Annual Report 2010.
  Navarro, M., 2011. New York proposes delay for waste transfer stations. The New York Times. 25 March.

Source: New York City Department of Sanitation, 2006.

Economic Assessment

Transportation Costs: Waste disposal at out-of-state landfills entails significant transportation
costs for New York City. Of the City’s roughly $1 billion annual budget for solid waste
management, approximately $300 million is currently spent to export 3.3 million tons of DSNY-

collected waste. 10 Fuel costs and truck fleet maintenance are factored into the “tipping fees” the
City must pay private transfer stations to process and transport MSW to distant landfills, and
these costs are expected to rise significantly. As of July 2010, New York City was paying $90.97
per ton for waste disposal at the Harlem River Yards transfer station, under a contract with
Waste Management, Inc. Between 1997 and 2007, tipping fees at New York City transfer
stations increased between 50 and 60 percent. 11 During the recent recession, waste generation
quantities have fallen significantly in the northeast, putting downward pressure on tipping fees.
However, these fees have historically increased at a rate greater than general inflation. A 2010
study commissioned by the City used 4% average annual increases in tipping fees as its most
reasonable projection and 3% as a conservative projection. 12

Infrastructure Improvement Costs: The SWMP calls for hundreds of millions of dollars worth
of waste infrastructure construction projects and retrofits in order to phase out long-haul trucking
and move toward neighborhood equity, including:
       A marine transfer station on East 91st Street at the East River in Manhattan, with an
       estimated cost of $125 million.
       A marine transfer station along Gravesend Bay in southwest Brooklyn, with an estimated
       cost of $108 million.
       A recycling facility on the Gansevoort Peninsula in Manhattan at Pier 52 on the Hudson
       River, with an estimated cost of $80 million.
       Retrofits to the marine transfer station in Manhattan at Pier 99 at West 59th St. and the
       Hudson, with an estimated cost of $50 million.13

Capital costs for these and other projects could create a significant financial burden for the City,
and full implementation of the SWMP is projected to increase overall costs for collection,
transportation, and disposal of MSW by 14.7% over status quo long-haul trucking practices.14
However, the new facilities would allow for additional barge and rail transport of MSW,
protecting DSNY from some of the future tipping fee increases associated with fuel price

In fiscal year 2009, DSNY spent $228 per ton for municipal refuse collection, not including
disposal costs.15 Collection costs would be expected to drop in the future as additional transfer
stations would limit City-collection truck travel by nearly 3 million miles.16

Environmental Assessment

Local Impacts from Transportation: New York City’s current waste disposal practices lead to
problematic local environmental and public health effects. Heavy reliance on truck transport

   City of New York, 2011
   R.W. Beck, 2010. Hunts Point Anaerobic Digestion Feasibility Study. Preapred for the
          New York City Economic Development Corporation. July 2010.
   Navarro, M., 2011.
   Overall cost projections before and after SWMP implementation can be found here:

   City of New York, Mayor's Office of Operations, 2011.
   City of New York, 2011

adversely affects air quality in communities around transfer stations. Studies have shown that
asthma rates are higher in New York City neighborhoods where truck traffic is heavy. 17 The air
quality threats associated with heavy truck traffic are likely the greatest local environmental
hazard linked to MSW management, and in this respect the City’s waste management practices
have helped turn some New York City neighborhoods into environmental justice (EJ)

Full implementation of the SWMP is expected to reduce City-collection truck travel by nearly 3
million miles and private long-haul truck travel on city streets by 2.8 million miles.18 By
reducing the amount of truck travel associated with MSW disposal, the City could lessen smog,
noise, traffic congestion and air pollution.

As the DSNY trucking fleet is modernized, City-collection truck emissions may become less
problematic. Portions of the DSNY fleet have recently shifted toward more efficient vehicle
technologies powered by compressed natural gas, ethanol blends, biodiesel, and hybrid-electric
engines. The current fleet has reduced particulate matter emissions by 80% and nitrogen oxide
emissions by 50%, compared to the 2005 fleet.19 Similar improvements in long-haul trucking
technology are unlikely to occur in the near-term, and because long-haul trucks must initially
travel within city limits, disposal options that rely heavily on long-haul trucking tend to have
more problematic local environmental impacts.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions: New York City’s solid waste system creates an estimated 1.66
million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, which is 3% of the city’s total.20 The
current system has two main sources of greenhouse gas emissions: transportation emissions and
methane in landfill gas.

New York City’s reliance on long-haul trucking generates significant greenhouse gas emissions,
as millions of tons of MSW are trucked to distant landfills each year, using one of the least fuel-
efficient transportation technologies available. In addition to reducing truck travel on city streets
by nearly 6 million miles, full implementation of the SWMP would eliminate 55 million miles of
long-haul truck travel outside of the city. In total, this transition would reduce greenhouse gas
emissions by approximately 38,000 metric tons per year.21

As MSW decomposes in a landfill, methane-rich landfill gas is generated. Methane is over
twenty times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and while many landfills now
capture portions of their emitted gas, landfill emissions consistently rank as the largest or second
largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the United States.22 Modern landfill gas

   Spira-Cohen, A., et al., 2011. Personal exposures to traffic-related air pollution and acute respiratory health
          Bronx schoolchildren with asthma. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(4), p. 559-565.
   City of New York, 2011
    New York City Department of Sanitation, 2010. 2010 Annual Report on Alternative Fuel Vehicle Program.
   U.S. EPA, 2010. “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2008.” U.S. EPA, Washington
          D.C., April 10, 2010

collection methods are estimated to capture approximately 65 to 90 percent of emissions. As a
point of reference, a 2009 study estimated that a Vancouver, BC landfill that captured
approximately 80% of its landfill gas still emitted 382 kg of CO2 equivalent per metric ton of

In addition to direct greenhouse gas emissions and indirect emissions that are a consequence of
MSW disposal (such as emissions from consumption of purchased electricity), New York City
has estimated its “Scope 3” emissions, which encompass other indirect emissions that occur
outside of City oversight. Annual Scope 3 fugitive methane emissions generated from the
decomposition of exported MSW are estimated at approximately 2.7 million metric tons of CO2
equivalent per year.24

New York City’s Interest in New Conversion Technologies for MSW

New York City has made efforts to explore new technologies for waste conversion in recent
years. In 2004, the City commissioned a multi-part evaluation of new and emerging solid waste
management conversion technologies that could be commercially viable for implementation in
New York City. Criteria for evaluated technologies included: readiness, size, reliability,
environmental performance, beneficial use of waste, and residual waste.

Phase Two of the evaluation, commissioned in 2006, determined that thermal processing and
anaerobic digestion were the most promising technologies for use in New York City. The Phase
Two report submitted by Alternative Resources, Inc. included a thorough analysis of proposed
in-city facilities for two anaerobic digestion technologies and four thermal processing
technologies. Hydrolysis was also highlighted as a less developed but potentially viable

The Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability released an update of its PlaNYC:
A Greener, Greater New York report in 2011. In a chapter on solid waste, the report details 13
initiatives meant to make the City’s waste-related practices more sustainable. Building on the
SWMP, these initiatives include enhanced recycling efforts and an exploration of pilot projects
for conversion technologies such as anaerobic digestion and thermal processing.

New York City has shown a strong interest in exploring new beneficial use options for MSW
disposal, and a range of potential conversion technologies could be worthy of consideration.
Three of the most prominent options are detailed in the following sections of this briefing paper.

   Ritchie, M. and Smith, C., 2009. Comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from waste-to-energy facilities and the
          Vancouver landfill. Technical Memorandum, prepared for the City of Vancouver. March 2009.

   City of New York, 2010. Inventory of New York City Greenhouse Gas Emissions, September 2010, by Jonathan
          Dickinson and Rishi Desai. Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, New York.

Waste-to-Energy Incineration

While Waste-to-Energy (WTE) incineration is currently used as a disposal method for a portion
of New York City’s MSW and the technology is often cited as a benchmark in discussions of
new conversion technologies, there are no current plans to locate WTE facilities within New
York City. Any expansion of WTE disposal would likely entail increased capacity at facilities
proximate to the city.

Description of Technology: WTE incineration plants combust MSW and capture the residual
heat in order to generate electricity, usually with steam boilers. Some WTE facilities also use the
heat created in the incineration process to provide district heating.

In the United States, most WTE plants process between 500 and 3,000 tons of MSW per day.
WTE plants generate an ash byproduct, in quantities roughly equivalent to 20% of the weight of
MSW processed. In the United States, a portion of the ash from WTE facilities is commonly
used for landfill cover, or in the production of concrete or cement. In Europe, “bottom ash”
(about 85% of the ash) is used in road construction. All remaining ash must be landfilled.

The WTE facility in Newark, New Jersey that currently processes a portion of the City’s waste is
owned and operated by Covanta Energy. The facility was opened in 1990, and it combusts 2,800
tons per day of MSW, generating approximately 65 megawatts (MW) of electricity for sale.

A WTE facility processing one million metric tons of MSW per year requires a land footprint of
about 100,000 square meters.25

Prevalence of WTE Facilities: Currently there are 89 WTE plants operating in the United
States, cumulatively generating about 2500 MW per day. No new facilities were brought on-line
between 1996 and 2007.26 While the United States Department of Energy and 23 states classify
WTE as a “renewable” source of energy, the lack of a cohesive ruling on this classification is one
reason for limited expansion of WTE facilities. In 2007, 12.5% of total MSW in the United
States was combusted to produce energy, while many European countries combusted over 30%,
and Japan combusted over 60%.27

Economic Assessment

Energy Generation: Electricity generation at a typical WTE plant is in the range of 500 to 600
kilowatt hours (kWh) per ton of MSW. Standard WTE facilities in the United States use steam
boilers to generate electricity, and net electric output efficiency is approximately 17% to 20%.28
This is only about half the efficiency of fossil fuel plants, so WTE is only economically

     Psomopoulos, C.S., Bourka, A., and Themelis, N.J., 2009. Waste-to-energy: A review of the status and benefits
         USA. Waste Management 29, 1718–172
   Diamond, M., 2011. Wasting Energy: Waste-to-Energy’s Struggle Highlights America’s Failure to Incentivize
         Renewable Energy. ABA Energy Committees Newsletter, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2011.
   Waste-To-Energy Research and Technology Council, 2011. Answers to Frequently Asked Questions Regarding

competitive as a commercial energy source if the additional benefits of waste disposal and
“renewable” status are accorded considerable value.

Many plants co-generate electricity and district heating (at roughly 1000 kWh per ton).
Denmark’s 28 WTE plants provide 35% of the country’s district heating. New York City would
be unlikely to benefit from this co-generation capacity because in-city siting of WTE facilities is
not currently under consideration.

Tipping Fees: WTE plants earn revenue from both tipping fees and the sale of the excess
electricity they produce. As of March 2011, the New Jersey Department of Environmental
Protection listed a tipping fee of $92.33/ton for the Covanta WTE facility in Newark. 29 Truck
transportation to and from the WTE facilities adds an additional cost burden for New York City.

Capital Costs and Other Economic Factors: While capital costs for new WTE plants can vary
significantly depending on location, size, and other factors, the Waste-to-Energy Research and
Technology Council estimates a rough guideline of $650 per annual ton of capacity. A typical
1,000-ton per day WTE plant employs about 60 staff members.30

Environmental Assessment

Pollutants and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: In the 1990’s, WTE plants faced opposition from
environmental groups because their air emissions often contained high levels of dioxins/furans
and heavy metals. After the Environmental Protection Agency implemented the maximum
                                                                  available             control
                                                                    technology        (MACT)
   Average Emissions of WTE Facilities in the United States         regulations in 1995, the
                                                                    United     States     WTE
                                                                    industry reduced dioxin
                                                                    and furan emissions by
                                                                    99.9%                  and
                                                                    mercury/volatile metal
                                                                    emissions by 99%.31
                                                                    Most WTE plants in the
                                                                    United States now emit
                                                                    significantly less than the
                                                                    allowable amounts of
                                                                    major pollutants.

                    Source: Psomopoulos et al., 2009                Combustion of solid
                                                                    waste produces fewer
pounds of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide per megawatt hour than combustion of coal, oil, or
natural gas. MSW combustion does emit more nitrogen oxide than oil and natural gas, and

   New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Facility Tipping Fees, March 2011:
   Waste-To-Energy Research and Technology Council, 2011
   Psomopoulos et al., 2009

slightly less than coal.32 WTE emissions of nitrogen oxide still comprise less than 1% of the
United States’ total.33

The city of Vancouver, British Columbia recently conducted a detailed study of how WTE
greenhouse gas emissions compare with emissions from landfills. In the 2008 comparison, the
WTE facility had lower emissions than the landfill (336 kg of CO2 equivalent per metric ton of
MSW, versus 382 from the landfill). However, as diversion rates are projected to increase and
organics are increasingly removed from the waste stream, it is assumed that the percentage of
plastic within Vancouver’s MSW will rise from 8% to 11%. This plastic-rich MSW would raise
WTE emissions to 460 kg of CO2e/metric ton of MSW, while reduced organic content would
lower landfill emissions to 243 kg of CO2e/metric ton of MSW.34 New York City’s SWMP
includes goals to increase recycling diversion rates, so similar future emission patterns from the
City’s waste stream could reasonably be expected.

WTE incineration facilities such as the Covanta facility in Newark emit a range from 0.4 to 1.5
metric tons of CO2e per megawatt hour of electricity produced, while landfill gas to electricity
facilities emit roughly 2.3 metric tons of CO2e per megawatt hour.35

Transportation Impacts: The MSW that is currently processed through WTE incineration must
be trucked to out-of-city facilities, requiring thousands of round-trips per year by collection
trucks. While the portion of MSW shipped to landfills by rail or barge is expected to rise with
implementation of the SWMP, current WTE facilities with City contracts cannot accommodate
rail/barge delivery, therefore any increase in WTE disposal would likely result in additional truck
travel and associated truck emissions. Newly built WTE facilities proximate to the City could
conceivably accommodate barge and/or rail delivery.

Anaerobic Digestion

New York City has commissioned a series of studies of new conversion technologies for MSW
management that could be viable for commercial implementation in the city, and in these studies
anaerobic digestion repeatedly emerged as one of the most promising options. The City has also
evaluated specific proposals for three in-city anaerobic digestion facilities: commercial proposals
from ArrowBio and Valorga, and a feasibility study of a Hunts Point facility (with no specified

   Diamond, M., 2011
   Psomopoulos, et al., 2009
   Ritchie, M. and Smith, C., 2009
   Covanta Energy Corporation, 2011. Verified petition of Covanta Energy Corporation requesting inclusion of
          energy from waste as an eligible technology in the main tier of New York's renewable portfolio standard
          program. Submitted to the State of New York Public Service Commission, February 11, 2011.

Description of Technology: Digestion is the controlled decomposition of organic materials by
microbes, generating liquids and gasses. Anaerobic digestion occurs in the absence of oxygen.
Organic portions of MSW (primarily food waste, yard waste, and paper) must first be separated
from the waste stream through a pre-treatment process. Digestion then occurs within a contained
chamber. This process produces a biogas (primarily methane and carbon dioxide), which can be
combusted to produce electricity, as well as a solid byproduct: digestate. Through a post-
treatment process, the digestate can be turned into compost.

Pre-treatment helps maximize recovery of recyclables beyond what is normally diverted.
Separation methods for pre-treatment differ in various plans analyzed by New York City. Many
involve typical sorting mechanisms such as magnets and screens, as well as size-reduction
equipment such as shredders and pulpers. One technology analyzed by the City, ArrowBio, uses
a water-based soaking method for separation, followed by wet digestion.

The digestion process can be wet or dry, and solids are retained in the digester for between 20
and 80 days. The biogas produced during digestion generally has methane quantities between
55% and 80%. Some technologies require an additional step to remove contaminants from
biogas. Biogas is then commonly combusted to produce electricity, and any electricity not
needed to power the process is sold to the grid.

Processing capacities for the proposed ArrowBio and Valorga facilities in New York City would
be approximately 200,000 tons per year (slightly over 500 tons per day), significantly lower than
throughput for proposed thermal processing facilities or WTE facilities. The ArrowBio facility
would require eight acres of land, while the Valorga facility would have a 14-acre footprint. The
Hunts Point facility discussed in the City’s 2010 feasibility study would process only 60,000 tons
of waste per year, and potential sites range from 3.2 to 7.23 acres.36

Global Prevalence: Existing facilities using a range of anaerobic digestion technologies are
currently operating in Spain, Belgium, Finland, Israel, Australia, and elsewhere. Within the
United States there are 151 operational anaerobic digestion systems, however most use livestock
manure as an input rather than MSW.37

Economic Assessment

Energy Generation: New York City identified electricity production as the most economical
use of biogas from anaerobic digestion (other options include vehicle fuel production and
biomethane production).38 Technologies reviewed by the City generated a range from 124-250
kilowatt-hours per ton of MSW processed. The proposed facilities that performed best in the
City’s analysis, ArrowBio and Valorga, have energy conversion efficiencies of approximately

   R.W. Beck, 2010
   Bracmort, K., 2010. Anaerobic Digestion: Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction and Energy Generation.
         Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 4, 2010.
   R.W. Beck, 2010
   Alternative Resources, Inc., 2006. Focused Verification and Validation of Advanced Solid Waste Management
         Conversion Technologies, Phase 2 Study. Prepared for NYC Economic Development Council. March

The Hunts Point facility discussed in the City’s 2010 feasibility study would produce about
1,500 kilowatts of electricity, net of on-site use.40

Projected Tipping Fees: Phase two of the City’s evaluation of new conversion technologies
included an economic analysis of anaerobic digestion and thermal processing facilities to
determine estimated 2014 tipping fees for commercial-scale projects. Projected capital and
operating costs were considered, along with estimated quantities of recovered energy, products
(such as compost), and byproducts requiring landfill disposal.

Under a public ownership/financing model, tipping fees for anaerobic digestion facilities were
projected to be between $43 and $65 per ton, depending on the technology used. Under a private
ownership/financing model, fees are estimated at $56 to $80 per ton.41 This is significantly less
than both thermal processing and current landfilling practices.

Large-scale markets are not currently in place for compost produced from MSW digestate. If a
market for composting could not be found, landfill disposal of digestate could push the cost to
approximately $72 to $108 per ton under public ownership, and $72 to $108 under private

Tipping fees account for roughly 60% of an anaerobic digestion facility’s revenue. The 2010
feasibility study concluded that new in-city facilities would be economically viable if they
charged tipping fees of $80/ton, escalating from 2009 at an assumed inflation rate of 3%.42

Costs for MSW disposal at anaerobic digestion facilities, particularly with ArrowBio technology,
are projected to be less expensive than current landfilling practices and most other disposal
options. While the capacity of any single anaerobic digestion facility would accommodate only
a modest portion of the City’s MSW, this technology seems to present a cost-effective option
that could play a role in future New York City disposal practices.

Environmental Assessment

Truck Transport: The City has identified Hunts Point as a potential site for an anaerobic
digestion facility, in part because the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center produces large
quantities of organic waste that is currently trucked to distant disposal facilities.43 With the
proposed new facility, this organic waste could be processed with little or no truck
transportation. A facility on the site would be expected to process about 60,000 tons of waste
annually, and approximately 18,000 tons of digestate byproduct would then need to be hauled
away. This net reduction of 42,000 tons of material per year would save the City 2,800 truck
trips annually (assuming the average truck holds about 15 tons).44 This considerable reduction in
truck transport would lessen traffic and air pollution in a neighborhood that is currently

   R.W. Beck, 2010
   Alternative Resources, Inc., 2006
   R.W. Beck, 2010
   DSM Environmental Services, 2005. Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, Organics Recovery Feasibility Study.
         Prepared for The NYC Economic Development Corporation. December 30, 2005.
   R.W. Beck, 2010

overburdened by truck traffic. A facility located near a large source of organic waste in another
part of the city near could also be expected to reduce local truck traffic significantly.

Pollutants and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Anaerobic digestion facilities tend to emit
extremely low levels of most pollutants. Little or no dioxin and mercury emissions are reported.
However, since the engines used to convert biogas to electricity in most digestion plants do not
have nitrogen oxide emission controls, nitrogen oxide emissions are generally higher than those
from WTE or thermal processing plants, contributing to smog.45

Since methane and other gasses are captured in the anaerobic digestion process, and facilities are
powered by the renewable energy produced, greenhouse gas emissions are very low. By reducing
the amount of waste sent to landfills, MSW disposal at anaerobic digestion facilities would
almost certainly reduce New York City’s carbon footprint.

Other Environmental Factors: Unlike WTE and thermal processing, anaerobic digestion
requires no fresh water for typical processes, and there is little to no wastewater discharged.

The pre-processing of waste that is necessary before digestion occurs would also allow the City
to recover a higher percentage of recyclable items from the waste stream.

Thermal Processing

A number of different thermal processing technologies decompose organic waste in high
temperature, oxygen-starved environments. This differs from WTE incineration because the lack
of oxygen prevents full combustion and oxidation. Thermal processing technologies include
gasification, plasma gasification, pyrolysis, cracking, and depolymerization. Distinctions
between these technologies center around the processing temperatures, the amount of oxygen
present during processing, and the degree of decomposition of organic waste.

Description of Technologies: Thermal processing technologies generate temperatures of 800 to
8,000 degrees Fahrenheit inside a reaction vessel in order to convert organic materials into
“syngas” (typically hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide) or fuel gas. This gas is then
combusted to produce energy. Supplemental fuels such as natural gas are sometimes added to
improve gas quality.

Syngas is made of unoxidized or incompletely oxidized compounds. Thermal technologies tend
to have lower air pollutant emissions than WTE incineration. More overall waste material is
eliminated in thermal processing than in incineration, as the ash remaining after processing is
only about 8% to 15% of the original volume.46

All carbon and hydrogen-based materials, including plastic, rubber, and textiles can potentially
be converted into energy with thermal processing. Some technologies require minimal pre-

     Alternative Resources, Inc., 2006
     The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, 2009. Waste Gasification: Impacts on the Environment and
           Public Health.

processing to remove large items. During processing, inorganic material is often turned into a
glassy vitrified material or a solid char material. Portions of this material can have beneficial
uses, but a range between 0% and 28% of the material generally requires landfill disposal.47

Air pollution controls are necessary on thermal processing facilities, and some technologies pre-
clean syngas as well.

Throughputs are relatively high for most thermal processing facilities. Typical plants can process
roughly one million tons per year. A single facility of this size in New York City could process
roughly 25% of the waste managed by DSNY. Land footprints of the four commercial facilities
analyzed for possible construction in New York City range from 11 to 36 acres.

Global Prevalence: Thermal processing technologies are relatively young, but both
demonstration projects and commercial facilities have become more common in recent years,
particularly in Asia. Japan disposes of about 40 million tons of MSW through thermal processing
each year.48 Plasma gasification plants are currently being constructed in Turkey and India, and a
number of North American cities have pilot projects in place. 49 Ottawa’s commercial scale
thermal processing demonstration project began the process of seeking a license for permanent
operation in 2011,50 while other demonstration projects are in various stages of completion in
Los Angeles,51 Tallahassee,52 and St. Lucie County, Florida.53

Economic Assessment

Energy Generation: Thermal processing facility operations are energy intensive, but the process
also generates significant quantities of energy. Net electricity production is typically 380-530
kilowatt-hours per ton of MSW. Some technologies that add fossil fuels to the process can
generate over 2,000 kilowatt-hours per ton of waste.54

Net electric output efficiencies for most thermal processing plants are approximately 15%, nearly
equivalent to WTE technology. However, facilities such as Rigel’s proposed plasma gasification
plant use combined-cycle combustion turbines and add fossil fuels to syngas, achieving
efficiencies of about 37%. Such technologies are therefore on par with base load fossil fuel
plants in terms of efficiency, while simultaneously offering waste disposal.

Capital and Operating Costs: Thermal processing facilities are relatively expensive to build,
operate, and maintain. Construction costs for the four potential facilities analyzed by the City
range from $405 million to $876 million. Average costs for both construction and

   Alternative Resources, Inc., 2006
   Alternative Resources, Inc., 2006
   Pourali, M., 2010. Application of Plasma Gasification Technology in Waste to Energy—Challenges and
        Opportunities. IEEE Transactions on Sustainable Energy, Vol. 1, No. 3, October 2010.
   Alternative Resources, Inc., 2006

operations/maintenance were more than double those of anaerobic digestion facilities on a per-
ton basis, according to New York City’s analysis.

Projected Tipping Fees: After considering facility costs and potential energy revenues, New
York City derived estimates for 2014 tipping fees at four proposed thermal processing facilities.
Projected tipping fees range from $96 to $129 per ton under public ownership models and $103
to $165 under private ownership models. While anaerobic digestion tipping fee estimates were
significantly lower, these projected fees are still reasonably competitive with estimated out-of-
state landfill tipping fees, especially if public ownership/financing could be arranged.

As thermal processing facilities become more prevalent, construction and operation costs are
expected to drop.55 These technologies might therefore present a more cost-effective option for
the City in the near future.

Environmental Assessment

Pollutant Emissions: Due to the limited number of commercial-scale thermal processing
facilities currently operating, quantitative emissions figures are difficult to obtain. According to
most measures, thermal processing is environmentally preferable to WTE incineration in terms
of pollutant emissions. Carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions are lower, and acid gas
emissions are far lower. Thermal processing plants also emit fewer dioxins and do not produce
ash that requires landfilling.56

Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The Environmental Protection Agency identifies Waste-to-Energy
disposal methods (including both thermal processing and WTE incineration) as net reducers of
greenhouse gas emissions, due to their production of electricity from sources other than fossil
fuels, as well as the avoidance of landfill emissions they provide. Because the electric output
efficiencies of thermal processing facilities and WTE incineration plants are roughly comparable,
their greenhouse gas emissions can be considered approximately equivalent.

Truck Transportation: If a thermal processing facility with a disposal capacity of roughly one
million tons per year (this is the approximate size of the commercial facilities evaluated by the
City) were built within New York City, approximately 25% of the MSW managed by DSNY
could be processed locally, eliminating thousands of miles of long-haul truck transport (some of
which occurs within city limits). A smaller-scale demonstration facility could accommodate
roughly to 3% to 5% of DSNY-managed waste, contributing to a more modest but still
significant reduction in long-haul truck miles traveled.

Total in-city truck traffic would be unlikely to rise appreciably with the adoption of an in-city
thermal processing plant, as transport to a thermal processing facility would simply replace
transport to a transfer station. Specific quantification of local truck transport changes would
depend largely on which current disposal contracts were discontinued. Local truck traffic around
the thermal processing facility could be heavy in the (largely industrial) neighborhoods being

   Spoerri, A. et al., 2010. Technological change in Swiss thermal waste treatment: An expert-based socio-technical
         analysis. Waste Management 30 (2010) 1382–1394.
   Alternative Resources, Inc., 2006

discussed as potential sites. However, siting a large-scale waste processing facility within city
limits would likely lead to a large net reduction in overall MSW truck transportation.

Thermal Processing, Recycling, and Waste Reduction: Thermal processing facilities
generally need a base level of organic and plastic waste in their feedstock to run properly. Some
environmental groups have opposed thermal processing (and other waste conversion
technologies) on the grounds that such technologies undermine recycling, composting, and waste
reduction efforts.57 In most cases, the energy produced by thermally converting waste into
syngas is less than that which could be saved by recycling waste and eliminating the need for
production of new materials. However, these methods are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Some portion of the waste stream cannot be recycled or will fail to be diverted, and conversion
technologies such as thermal processing still have a number of environmental benefits over other
disposal methods.

Policy Recommendations

The primary goals of the SWMP – improved environmental justice through borough equity, and
a shift toward more environmentally friendly, economical methods of waste transportation –
remain highly desirable for New York City. However, in the five years since the release of the
SWMP, technological developments and economic factors have created a changed landscape,
and the City would benefit from a reevaluation of the best methods for achieving these goals.

Increased reliance on local disposal options could potentially allow the City to limit the capital
expenditures proposed in the SWMP. In particular, the construction of some waste
containerization facilities/marine transfer stations may prove to be unnecessary if environmental
goals can be achieved by processing additional portions of MSW at in-city conversion facilities
and nearby WTE plants. Speeding the adoption of improved emission control technology for the
DSNY vehicle fleet could also reduce the environmental burdens on New York City

Given the vast amount of waste managed by DSNY and the complex tradeoffs between various
disposal options, a combination of methods will necessarily be needed for New York City’s
MSW disposal for years to come. Economic considerations, environmental factors, and
neighborhood equity must be balanced as the City seeks to create a more sustainable waste
management system. As the City recalibrates the composition of future waste disposal contracts,
efforts should be made to rapidly integrate desirable new options that have demonstrated
feasibility and ensure that all capital-intensive projects meet the long-term goals outlined in the
SWMP. A table comparing various disposal options is included at the conclusion of this paper.

The Role of WTE Incineration: Given the cost-competitiveness, reasonable electricity
generation efficiency, and high throughput capacity of WTE facilities, this disposal method
appears to be superior to landfilling in many respects. WTE facilities proximate to the city also
offer disposal sites that do not add environmental burdens to any city neighborhoods and would
not spark siting controversies. As such, continuing or increasing out-of-city WTE incineration

     The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, 2009

practices would likely reduce the burden on New York City’s Environmental Justice (EJ)

Required truck transportation to out-of-city facilities remains as one of the major drawbacks of
this disposal method. However, improvements in DSNY truck efficiency should eventually
negate some of these problems. If the City does continue with full-scale development of
containerization facilities for barge and rail MSW transport, it would also be advisable to solicit
bids from WTE facilities that can accept waste through these more efficient transportation
methods, and consider expanding the tonnage sent to WTE facilities in the future.

In-City Anaerobic Digestion: Based on the City’s evaluations of proposed anaerobic digestion
facilities, this technology appears to be economically preferable to most other disposal options
and it entails few environmental drawbacks. The Hunts Point facility discussed in the City’s
2010 feasibility study would also reduce truck travel in a neighborhood that is currently
overburdened with traffic and pollution. While an anaerobic digestion facility could only handle
a modest amount of the City’s MSW, such a facility would likely help meet the overarching
goals of the SWMP.

Given the City’s stated interest in moving forward with pilot projects for beneficial use MSW
conversion technologies, commencing the procurement process for a Hunts Point anaerobic
digestion facility in the near term seems to be a worthy goal.

Securing an in-city site for any MSW conversion facility will be one of the greatest challenges
facing the City in this process. Neighborhood equity concerns and Not-In-My-Backyard
arguments traditionally hinder siting projects, as the communities around proposed sites would
face real or perceived environmental burdens from the new facilities. Public outreach and
education efforts about the actual effects of in-city conversion facilities should precede any siting
efforts. Anaerobic digestion facilities have negligible emissions, and a facility near the Hunts
Point Food Distribution Center would be expected to reduce overall neighborhood truck traffic
by allowing large quantities of waste to be processed in the immediate vicinity rather than
trucked out of the area. Three potential sites for an anaerobic digestion facility were already
identified in the 2010 feasibility study. It may be necessary for the City to launch neighborhood
environmental remediation or beautification projects in an effort to ease the siting process around
the chosen location.

Given current budget issues, it would be advisable for the City to use a Private Ownership and
Financing model for this project. The Design-Build-Own-Operate model of public-private
partnerships tends to speed the financing process and lessen financial risk for the City.

Thermal Processing: While thermal processing facilities can accommodate large quantities of
MSW, they are currently very expensive to build, operate, and maintain. It is unlikely that the
City could reduce waste management costs by pursuing a thermal processing facility at the
expense of currently planned waste infrastructure upgrades. It is also possible that the ambitious
recycling targets proposed in the SWMP and PlaNYC could eventually create problems in
ensuring appropriate MSW feedstocks for a thermal processing facility.

However, as new thermal processing facilities and demonstration projects move forward, it is
very possible that the technology will mature and become more economically and
environmentally viable in the near future.

Looking Ahead: The City should consider undertaking a cost-benefit analysis to evaluate the
relative merits of continuing all planned waste infrastructure upgrades, versus adopting a slightly
scaled-back plan with portions of available capital diverted to expand in-city disposal options
(such as anaerobic digestion) and expedite the modernization of the DSNY truck fleet. As a part
of this analysis, the City should attempt to precisely quantify necessary truck miles traveled for
all possible disposal options. Truck transport emissions are a major source of local neighborhood
pollution as well as greenhouse gasses. Rising fuel costs also make overreliance on truck
transport economically risky for the City. As such, disposal plans that limit both local and long-
haul trucking should be given initial priority. Because nearly all disposal options require local
collection-truck travel, the accelerated modernization of the DSNY truck fleet could potentially
offer the most cost-effective way to lessen local environmental impacts.

A wide range of technologies should continue to be considered for future disposal of New York
City’s MSW. Ideally, the City should conduct a Review of Improvements in MSW Technology
approximately every five years, in order to remain on the forefront of developments that could
play a role in New York City’s waste management. In particular, thermal processing
technologies are likely to become more affordable as new facilities are built and one or more of
the available technologies emerges as the demonstrated leader in conversion efficiency.
Hydrolosis technology will also likely soon advance beyond the demonstration phase in the
United States, and should be seriously considered for future MSW disposal projects.

The overall scale of MSW disposal needs in New York City necessitates multiple, and
continually evolving solutions. As current landfill contracts near their conclusions, additional in-
city projects should continue to be explored.

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